This week’s Torah reading is central to one of the greatest controversies in the history of England, the Levirate marriage of King Henry VIII, and Sephardim helped to cast the deciding vote! Yibum, or Levirate marriage, is the Biblical practice wherein a man is called upon to marry his deceased brother’s widow if he died without ever fathering a child.
The practice of yibum is described in parashat Ki Tetze: “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one not of his kin; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).”
The first recorded case of yibum took place in Genesis when Yehuda’s eldest son died without children. His second son was therefore charged with marrying his widow, Tamar, in order to ensure the continuity of his family line. He balked at the proposition and as a result he too died. Tamar then remained in limbo awaiting marriage to the next son, until she took matters into her own hands and had a child with Yehuda himself.
Incredibly, history’s most famous case of yibum was not a Jewish one, but involved England’s King Henry VIII! Henry’s older brother Arthur was married to Catherine of Aragon. However, in 1501, after just six months of marriage, he died childless. Catherine was then betrothed to Henry. She married him in 1509 when he became king following the death of his father King Henry VII.
However, Henry VIII eventually wanted to marry Anne Boleyn instead and sought a Papal annulment (as divorce was not permitted to Catholics). He argued that his first marriage was invalid as Catherine was his brother’s wife, and was therefore Biblically off limits to him according to the law as recorded in Leviticus: “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness (18:16).” The Pope refused. For one thing, Catherine had always claimed that the first marriage was never consummated and therefore according to the Pope she was never truly married to Arthur in the first place. Furthermore, as we’ve seen above, in Deuteronomy the Torah advocates marrying a deceased brother’s wife (yibum) in a case of childlessness.
In seeking an alternative, Henry VIII’s advisors looked to the Jews of Venice, a diverse Jewish community made up of Italian, Ashkenazi, and Ponentine (Portuguese) and Levantine (Ottoman) Sephardic Jews. For one thing, Jews believed in divorce. It was also argued that perhaps Henry VIII could Biblically even take a second wife. Most importantly though, out of a Talmudic concern for ulterior motives (bTalmud Bekhorot 13a) Jews reportedly didn’t practice yibum any longer, only the alternative halitza – the Biblical ritual which severs the yibum bond (indeed, nowadays Jews worldwide always perform halitza in place of yibum).
There are many stories about what happened next, and these are best reconciled by Dr David S. Katz in his book ‘The Jews in the History of England: 1485-1850.’ Essentially, the king’s agents met with a Jewish convert to Christianity in Venice named Mark Raphael who claimed to have a solution. Raphael was then smuggled to England to present his arguments directly to the king, which he did on at least two occasions. Each time he made a different argument which led to the different accounts of what actually transpired. However, in his final meeting he argued that yibum is only permitted when one was intending to build, as the Torah states, ‘his brother’s name.’ King Henry VIII was clearly intending to build his own name through an heir, which Raphael claimed was why all of the king’s male babies had died (similar to the death of Tamar’s second husband). In such an instance, Raphael contended, the Leviticus prohibition remained in effect and so the Levirate marriage was invalid and could be annulled.
Ultimately, despite all of King Henry VIII’s Jewish efforts, the Pope was not swayed. He was aware that whilst Ashkenazi Jews no longer fulfilled yibum, at that time Sephardic Jews in Italy still did so. In fact, a case of yibum was reported to have taken place in Rome itself in 1530!
As a result of his failed effort, Henry VIII had no other choice but to establish the Church of England with himself at its head. His marriage to Catherine was annulled in 1533 and shortly thereafter Anne Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth.
It is worth noting that Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the monarchs who expelled Spanish Jewry in 1492. As a result of the expulsion, Sephardim at this time were regularly adjudicating difficult cases relating to yibum. All too often, the brother of a deceased husband was unavailable to perform yibum or the requisite halitzah as he had remained behind in Spain and converted to Christianity. This limbo would in effect leave his sister-in-law an agunah, unable to marry anyone else. These difficult cases became known as yevamah meshumad (apostate yibum) and Sephardic sages sought various measures to release these ‘chained’ women. I wonder then whether the Spanish & Portuguese Jews of Italy realised that through their continuing fulfilment of yibum they had inadvertently helped to bring about an ironic revenge against the Spanish throne!
Henry VIII’s advisors were so interested in Jewish precedent that they went so far as to order the then recently printed Venetian Bomberg Talmud. It was the first Talmudic print with the now typical Talmud page layout. Interestingly, Bomberg wasn’t Jewish, but saw Judaica as a profitable venture. He therefore needed assistance, and much of the Talmud knowhow came from the Jews of Venice. Indeed, Sephardic Jews had brought the printing craft itself with them when they were expelled from the Peninsula in 1492. The first printed volume of Talmud had appeared in Guadalajara, Spain (outside of Madrid) back in 1482.
However, by the time the Talmud actually arrived in London King Henry VIII had already given up and established the Church of England. He therefore had no use for the new set of Talmud. Still, the pages were nonetheless bound and put into the archives of Westminster Abbey. They remained there until they were identified by the late famous Judaica collector Jack Lunzer of London.
For years, Lunzer sought to purchase the deeply important Talmud volumes, but each time he was rebuffed. Eventually, Lunzer came across the original deed to Westminster Abbey, which he purchased. When the Abbey asked him what he wanted in return, he only had to smile. The set of Talmud became the jewel in the crown of Lunzer’s 13,000 volume collection, the Valmadonna Trust Library. Lunzer passed away on Sunday, 18 December, 2016. It was the week of Shabbat Vayesheb, when we read the story of Yehuda and Tamar.